Defrosting an RV refrigerator is a surprisingly easy job. We’ve been living with a propane RV refrigerator for many years now, and they always need defrosting after a few weeks or months. Being meticulous about not leaving the refrigerator door open unnecessarily can help, but when you find yourself living in a hot and humid environment or if you have the refrigerator side of your trailer or motorhome facing the blazing hot summer sun all afternoon, the frost is going to build up over time.
All you need to defrost an RV refrigerator is:
Over the years, we’ve tried several different techniques for defrosting our RV fridge, and in the old days this was a big job that, with some methods, could take well over an hour. We now have it down to a super fast method that makes this pesky job a cinch. The last time we did it, I made a note of the time on the clock as we went through each step. From start to finish, it took 20 minutes.
The first step is to turn off the refrigerator and empty the contents of the freezer into cooler bags or a cooler of some kind. Since these things will be out of the freezer for just 20 minutes, they won’t defrost and the ice cream won’t melt. If your RV is hot inside, covering the cooler bags with blankets for extra insulation can help.
We used to unload the whole refrigerator and empty it out completely, but that isn’t necessary and it takes a lot of time. An awful lot of what is in the refrigerator can handle warming up slightly as you keep the refrigerator door open to defrost it.
Instead, just unload the most temperature sensitive items — milk, yogurt, lunch meats, mayonaise, etc., into an insulated cooler bag or a cooler. Most of the fruits, veggies, bread, cheese, condiments, etc., can remain right where they are in the fridge for the 20 minutes it takes to defrost it.
Next, put a super absorbant chamois towel in the bottom of the freezer compartment to absorb the water from the melting ice, and use a hair dryer to thaw the walls of the freezer.
We live exclusively on solar power, and our 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter is what powers all our AC appliances, including the hair dryer. So, we have a low wattage travel hair dryer that draws just 800 watts (available here).
We put it on the high setting and keep a distance of about 8″ between the hair dryer and the walls of the freezer. A higher wattage hair dryer may need to be put on the low heat setting. Hold your hand about 8″ from the hair dryer and see how hot it feels.
After thawing the walls of the freezer a little, move down to the cooling fins in the refrigerator compartment. Keep the hair dryer in constant motion, sweeping it back and forth from side to side.
Alternate working on the freezer compartment and the refrigerator compartment.
Little ice sheets will begin to fall off the refrigerator cooling fins into the drip tray underneath. As the thawing process continues, increase the distance between the hair dryer and the cooling fins.
Don’t chisel the ice off the fins or the freezer walls with a tool. If you pierce the metal base behind the cooling fins or the walls of the freezer, the refrigerant (ammonia) will leak out. We don’t use any chiseling device. We simply assist the thawing process with the hair dryer.
Check beneath the cooling fins and you’ll see the bits of ice dropping into the drip tray.
If you go outside, on the back of the RV you’ll see water seeping out of the refrigerator vent.
Once all the ice has fallen off the cooling fins, pull out the drip tray and dump the ice in the sink.
Up in the freezer compartment, the chamois towel is now fairly wet with water that has dripped down off the walls. Wring it out and use it to wipe down the freezer and the fridge.
Load the food from the cooler bags back into the refrigerator and freezer compartments, and you’re done! Put the fridge at max temp for a few hours to help it cool back down, and then set it to the temperature setting you normally use.
Other RV Refrigerator Tips
The key to having an RV refrigerator work optimally is having the air circulate inside well. Overstuffing the fridge with food makes this difficult for it. We have used a little RV refrigerator airator fan that’s designed to keep the air flowing. We’ve had mixed results with this, and when it died we didn’t replace it. I think this would work well if there were space between all the food, but our fridge is usually packed (the turf wars between the beer and the veggies can be brutal…sometimes we can hear them battling it out in there!).
As a maintenance item, we keep the door seals clean, wiping them down periodically.
We use simple refrigerator thermometers to monitor the temperatures in the fridge and freezer. It has a built in hook, and we hang it from one of the rungs in the top shelf in the refrigerator. The one in the freezer rests against one wall.
We were surprised to learn that RV refrigerators have an expected lifespan of about 8 to 10 years. A classic sign of impending failure is the appearance of yellow dust in the refrigerator vent area behind the fridge (go outside and take the vent cover off and look around with a flashlight). Click the following link to read the funny story of our RV refrigerator replacement and see how an RV fridge replacement is done.
Because of the shorter lifespan, higher price, and use of propane in RV refrigerators, many (most) “full-time” level fifth wheels and motorhomes are now being built with residential refrigerators that run on AC power only (a dedicated inverter is installed so it can run from the batteries while in transit). For folks that have plans to dry camp and boondock a lot in their RV life, a residential refrigerator will require a much bigger battery bank and solar panel array than would otherwise be needed. We discuss that in more detail at this link in our introductory solar power article.
If our hair dryer method of defrosting an RV fridge seems unorthodox to you, believe me, we have tried many other methods. We tried opening the fridge and freezer doors and letting the fridge thaw out on its own. We tried doing that and “helping it along” by chiseling the ice off with a small plastic scraper. We tried putting a bowl of hot water in the fridge to help it warm up.
All of these methods were adequate, but they were time consuming. We’ve been using our current method with the mini travel hair dryer for a few years now and really, really like it.
Never miss a post — it’s free!
Below are some of our most POPULAR POSTS (also in the MENUS above)Buddy - A Journey in Spirit - The story of an event that changed our lives forever. ARTICLE INDEXES
- RV Tech Tips Articles - A one page index of links to all our RV Tech Tips, RV Upgrades & RV Maintenance articles.
- RV Lifestyle Tip Articles - An index of links to all our RV Lifestyle Tips (finances, boondocking, major repairs, work/jobs, etc.)
- Solar Power Articles - Overview and tutorial articles for how to design and install solar power on an RV or boat
- Product Reviews - An index of links to all of our Product Reviews
- RV Heater Installation - Step-by-step guide for how to select and install a vent-free propane heater
- Buying a Truck - Which options turn an ordinary diesel pickup into a massive TOWING MACHINE?
- Winter RVing Tips - How to STAY WARM in an RV
- How to HEAT AN RV - Heating tips for those dastardly blizzards on mountaintops!
- The Ultimate Flashlight for RVers and Boaters - The 4000 lumen search FLASHLIGHT we rely on
- Battery Charging Primer - The low-down on RV and marine batteries and how to charge them effectively.
- B&W Fifth Wheel Hitch - Why we chose this hitch for our fiver plus an easy 5th Wheel Hitch Installation Guide.
- How to change a dually truck's inner rear tire - Tips for changing the inner rear tire on a dually truck.
- Wet Cell vs. AGM Batteries - Which is better, why we upgraded, PLUS wiring tips to optimize battery life
- Increase Your RV Storage Space - Add precious storage space at the RV dinette with storage benches!
- Which Solar Panels are Best? - Which is better: FLEXIBLE or RIGID?? 12 or 24 volt?? monocrystalline or polycrystalline???
- RV Solar Power Made Simple - An overview of how solar power works on an RV
- Trailer Disc Brake Conversion - Massively improve trailer stopping power with electric over hydraulic disc brakes
- Truck Engine Upgrade - How we improved performance, towing power and fuel economy with an engine tuner
- How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes - It is actually a cinch to defrost an RV fridge!
- Solar Charge Controllers - Understand and OPTIMIZE your RV / marine battery solar charging
- Suspension Overhaul on a 5th Wheel - A Total Re-design for our Suspension: Hangers, springs, shocks & more!
- Can you run SOLAR POWER and SHORE POWER together? - What happens when you're on solar and you plug in?
- RVing Tips & Tricks - Tips and tricks to make RVing easy
- Converters, Inverter/Chargers and Engine Alternators - How do these battery charging systems REALLY work?
- How to BE COOL in summer! - Tips for cooling off your RV!
- RV Budget, Costs and Expenses - A detailed analysis of RVing expenses over 7 years of RVing full-time
- RV Extended Warranties - Is an RV warranty a good investment or a waste of money? Our personal case history.
- Working and Living on the Road - How do you make money on the road and who lives this nomadic lifestyle?
- Sell or Lease the House? - Is it better to SELL or LEASE your house when you start a life on the road?
- Mexican Dentists - Are the Dentists in Mexico any good? Just how cheap are they? Here are our PERSONAL experiences.
- How An RV Warranty Saved Our Bacon - Literally! - One repair on our RV practically paid for our RV Extended Warranty
- Still Smiling After 3 Days at the RV Repair Shop - Why? Our RV Warranty put us $2,000 ahead of the game!
- 5th Wheel Suspension Replacement - When our trailer's suspension failed, we $aved $$$ Thousands getting it replaced.
- RV Toilet Replacement - Our RV toilet quit flushing (ugh!) but our RV warranty saved us again. Now we're $6,700 ahead!
- RV Boondocking - Tips for how to live in an RV off the grid
- Which RV Is Best for Full-Time Living? - Transitioning from a house to an RV - Which RV makes the best home?
- Full-time RV Lifestyle Tips - Full-time RVing Logistics - Mail, Domicile, Insurance, Warranties, Saving Money at RV Parks
- What are the MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES in a Full-time Fifth Wheel? - For anyone planning to live in an RV!
- Internet & Phone Access for RVers - An inexpensive, minimalist solution for internet access on the road
- RV Dump Stations & Compost Toilets - How to do the dirty deed at the RV dump PLUS RV Composting Toilet tips
- Choosing a Trailer for Full-time RVing - Why the payload capacity is so important
- Learn RVing the Fun Way!! - Go Cheap, Go Small, Go NOW and have a blast in little RV!
- Free RV Campsites - Resources for locating campsites for boondocking
- Glimpses of the Full-time RV Life - Anecdotes from the road and essays about living the RV dream.
- Travel Photography Tips! - All the cameras, gear, books, blogs and tools we used to learn to take great pics!
- Gear Store - A list of the goodies, equipment and gear we've found useful in our RV lifestyle!
Our most recent posts:
- Where to See WILDFLOWERS (especially POPPIES) in Arizona 2023! 03/21/23
- Toy Hauler Life – What’s It Like to Live in a Toy Hauler? 03/08/23
- Dead Horse Ranch State Park + Tuzigoot, Clarkdale & AZ Copper Museum! 02/17/23
- Catalina State Park & Roosevelt Lake – Winter RV Camping in AZ! 01/20/23
- Demco 21K Recon Fifth Wheel Hitch Review and Installation 12/23/22
More of our Latest Posts are in the MENU.
New to this site? Visit RVers Start Here to find where we keep all the good stuff!!
We discovered the “hair dryer” method a few years ago and you’re right, it’s the fastest. Laughed at your “turf wars” between the beer and the veggies. That’s why we carry along a separate electric cooler, just for the beer (and some sturdy extra veggies, like cabbage and carrots). When we don’t have electricity, we keep things cool in the cooler with a couple of reusable freezer packs. Our RV fridge is big, but never big enough for everything we want. 🙂
Those darn turf wars. Giving them all more turf with an electric cooler must help a lot, lol!!
Especially be careful and NOT use an ice pick or any other sort of implement to remove the ice. You poke a hole and you can cause a leak and it can be very dangerous.
The ammonia (NH3) refrigerant is an anhydrous ammonia, its of such a purity (its not at all like the stuff you can buy in the store) that it can be explosive and flammable and the gas vapors itself are dangerous. The one thing that we have on our side is that these ammonia absorption units have a small amount of ammonia in it, but a cloud of vapor can explode in a small fire ball even with just a small amount of ammonia if exposed to open flame or spark. Ice cream plants use anhydrous ammonia for their refrigeration and freezing and every once in a while a leak can occur and explosion can level the place!
Thank you for reiterating the warning, and especially for the details why!!
seamless tubed [better than the OEM tubes] remanufactured pre-charged ‘guts’ are available on ebay for most RV refridgerators, and new ‘guts’ are available for ones not having rebuilts for alittle more……..installation is not complicated and no special tools are needed………..price is 1/3 the cost of whole new unit installed by a dealer [unless one has door to window RV insurance!].
now i’m going to go have my fun looking at horse bend in the picture part of this installment……after i’m jacked up, then add a shelf to expand the house battery bank in our ‘new to us’ class A shortie.
Thanks for the tips! The warranty option is a good one too since it covers a lot more than just the fridge. When our RV fridge died, our RV warranty covered the replacement completely with just a $100 deductible and now we have a brand new fridge… (more info here).
Great post, for those full timing, we as short week or two trips can just turn off and sop up the water after;)
Only thing I would disagree with is the setting of the thermostat high and coming back to lower, if it is working it will work hard at getting it to right temp you set. I installed an outdoor thermometer’s remote probe into the refrig just below the coils just to get peace of mind that it is working.
Yup, vacationers are lucky not to have to deal with defrosting these things, that’s for sure! Our logic is that the fridge will cool down faster if set to “max cold,” but it will definitely get cold either way, and it may or may not be faster. With everything in this lifestyle, do what you feel is right for you!!
Tried your method – worked wonderfully!!!
Did discover yet another problem with this new Heartland Pioneer – the runoff (to the outside) doesn’t work well. Had a small stream coming out of the bottom frame of the fridge – which unfortunately is right above the fuse panel!! Had me hopping to mop as fast as I could. Kept up, no panel issues, but that sure intensified the experience!!! Thanks for posting your method!! Worked great!!
I’m so glad to hear that it worked for you, Nore. Too bad about the drainage and fuse panel location on your Heartland Pioneer, but at least you caught it in time and won’t be surprised next time!!
Got done defrosting. It worked great. Then I discovered it will take 6 to 8 hours or longer for the fridge to come back to a safe temperature to put the food back in. Had to run and get ice for the cooler.
Gosh, that’s strange. With our 8 cubic foot fridge we found that if it was turned off for 20 minutes and all our food was remaining chilled in coolers, it didn’t take long for for the fridge to get back to its normal temp. Perhaps you have a bigger fridge (they can be as large as 18 cubic feet which is more than double the size of ours) or perhaps it took longer than 20 minutes for you to remove the frost buildup…